30 Days & 30 Ways to Be a Better Ally
A WORKBOOK BY GLORIA ATANMO
If you've been looking for a resource to help you explore allyship, or you're looking for something to share with friends who don't know where to begin, I highly recommend checking out the ally resource guide put together by Gloria Atanmo, better known as Glo.
This resource is chalk full of videos, quotes, journal prompts, and more. I cannot begin to tell you how much thought, care, energy, and emotion was put into this. It's only $27 and available here.
As the protests against racism and white supremacy have swept across the country, I have seen many people (mostly White) focusing on one thing: how awful it is that people are looting and rioting. Considering the fact that protests are ongoing in all fifty states, and many of them go day and night, the average amount of people engaging in violence or looting is less than 1%. Yes, truly. At any given time, tens of thousands of people are actively protesting peacefully in each major city (see example videos below). If you would like to see this live you can find ongoing coverage on Twitter.
So if 99% of protests are peaceful, why does so much of the national conversation keep going back to the looting? Why does the news focus on it? It may seem like the natural order of things that people want to talk about the rioting, even if it's a small percent, but it actually gets into much deeper issues that are at the heart of all of this - implicit bias, guilt, and a resistance to talk about our country's history.
Before we get into our conversation about this, I need to make something clear: I am not condoning the rioting or looting. I am writing this to break down why it's the only thing some people want to see. And if you're not one of the people obsessively talking about it, I encourage you to keep reading anyway. It will help you to understand those that are and how deeply ingrained our social conditioning is.
I've broken the discussion up into six parts. Let's dive in.
Throughout American history, Black men, women, and children have been falsely stereotyped as being excessively violent. We, as White people (and some Non-Black People of Color), have painted a narrative of Black Americans as born criminals who must actively resist their violent nature in order to exist in society.
By focusing on the rioting and looting, we are reinforcing this painful, wrong, and intentionally hurtful false stereotype. It also reinforces our own implicit biases without putting any responsibility on ourselves to question why we're so obsessed with the minority of people who are being violent.
At this time, it is more important than ever that we emphasize the humanity of Black Americans. Black Americans are asking us to realize we have stripped them of the right to feel human and we need to do better NOW. To do better, we must stop sharing stories that reinforce stereotypes and our own bias.
Bottom line: Focusing on the rioting reinforces our implicit biases and keeps certain White people (and some Non-Black People of Color), in their comfortable and familiar narrative.
By focusing on the looting, we absolve ourselves from having to ask the deeper questions. Why are Black Americans in so much pain and so angry they want to burn this country down? What are we, as White People (and some Non-Black People of Color), doing to cause that anger? In what ways have each one of us contributed to the pain in the hearts of Black Americans?
Basically, to talk about the looting gives us a way out of acknowledging that we feel guilty. Rather than admitting we're uncomfortable talking about the pain and anger we've caused, we find something else to point at. We see a Black Woman pouring her heart out in a video, asking us how it's possible we didn't see the oppression. We see a Black Man talking about the fear he feels every time he leaves his house. This is hard to hear, because we have all ignored these truths our whole lives, and rather than admit we're complicit, we say "Look at the fire! Look at the broken windows! Look there! Look there!"
Bottom line: Many White people (and some Non-Black People of Color) are looking for ways to justify not doing the anti-racist work.
If you have a critique for the resistance, for our resistance, then you better have an established record of critique of our oppression." - Jesse Williams
If we're constantly sharing photos of broken windows and burned cars, we don't have to look at our own race and hold White people accountable. Once again, we let ourselves off the hook while pointing our finger elsewhere. There is a growing body of evidence that many riots were started by White people. Because this is so prevalent, Black protestors have begun filming them doing it in order to show who's really starting this (see below).
To get even deeper into this, read into the mysterious pile of bricks that show up at protest locations. They are being put there by extremist White groups to intentionally cause mayhem.
Many people will take this point and say, maybe some Whites did start it, but I saw Black people doing it! This has been addressed in points one and two. Basically, a need to confirm our own bias and an inability to ask deeper questions is why so many White people (and some Non-Black People of Color) would rather talk about the riots than the messed up system we live in.
Bottom line: Most of us are so uncomfortable holding White people accountable we'll talk about anything EXCEPT our own people.
Here are some examples of White people intentionally hijacking the protests for their own disturbing agendas:
The majority of protestors are overwhelmingly peaceful. In order to understand why people want to focus on the violence rather than the peaceful protests, we must revisit points 1, 2 and 3.
Bottom line: We have a choice what stories we amplify. Which ones we share and talk about speaks volumes about who we really are.
Talking about the looting is a way of making it about us. It's a way to make White people the victims. It's a way to center ourselves in the conversation. This is known as "White Centering" and is a well researched and documented social phenomenon. Essentially, we White people are so used to seeing ourselves at the center of every issue, we subconsciously find ways to put ourselves there even when it's not about us.
In order to understand this more fully, I suggest any books that dive into race and identity. Some good ones are Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria and Race Talk and the Conspiracy of Silence.
This point also ties into point two - which is that we don't want to acknowledge the pain in the Black community. Rather than talk about the hundreds of years of oppression and injustice we have caused, we find it easier to somehow make ourselves the victims in all of this.
Bottom line: White identity is socially constructed to see itself at the center of all issues. If we're not in the center, we'll find a way to get there.
African people were kidnapped from their homes, enslaved, and worked to death in order to build this country. Our societies are built upon their bodies. And if we're really going to get real, we need to address that their bodies were laid on top of the Indigenous communities we decimated to clear the way.
The discomfort of looking at how this country was founded is so overwhelming, we as White people will do anything to shift the narrative onto something else. This ties into all of the points above. So long as we can use distractions to avoid this conversation, we can absolve ourselves, paint everyone else out to be violent, disregard any deep inner reflection, keep the status quo, and feel like we're still the heroes at the center of it all.
Bottom line: We have yet to acknowledge or own up to our own history of violence. White people have done and continue to do unforgivable things. Talking about anything else is a means of intentional deflection.
When it comes to healing the racial wounds that divide this country into the oppressed and the oppressor, the thing that comes up time and time again as a means to healing is dialogue. We need to talk. And we, as White people, need to listen.
And more importantly, we need to listen when people are expressing their anger. As I have read the accounts of different Black Americans, the thing I continually hear is White Americans only want to listen when it's comfortable. We must be spoken to in soft, calming tones. We want to be reassured we're good people. We want to be told things aren't that bad, and it's okay to let time heal this. We don't want to be made aware of the sense of urgency the Black community lives with.
We, the White people, must be treated like fragile glass eggs that could break at any second. We must not be made aware of the deep residing pain that develops within Black Americans as they live with the daily struggles of racism - from both micro and macro aggressions.
White Americans are uncomfortable with the anger of Black men and women for many reasons. It makes us feel guilty. It makes us afraid we'll respond wrong and be labeled racist (this is a reflection of how much we make this about ourselves). It makes us afraid because we have internalized false biases about how Black people are naturally more violent (if you believe this, we need to have an even longer discussion RIGHT NOW). And on a deeper level, we don't want these inherently cruel and patently wrong prejudices to be surfaced, because again, that would make us look bad.
On average, White people want to see things change without having to acknowledge that people are angry. Because if we see the anger, then we see the pain, and if see the pain, we must admit things have been bad for a very, very long time and we have done nothing for a very, very long time.
A Black man's life, in his own words:
It gets so tiring, you know. It sucks you dry. People don't trust you. From the moment I wake up, I know stepping out the door, that it will be the same, day after day. The bus can be packed, but no one will sit next to you. You get served last... when they serve you they have this phony smile and just want to get rid of you... you have to show more ID to cash a check, you turn on the TV and there you always see someone like you, being handcuffed and jailed. They look like you and sometimes you begin to think it is you! You are a plague! You try to hold it in, but sometimes you lose it. Explaining doesn't help. They don't want to hear. Even when they ask, "Why do you have a chip on your shoulder?" Shit... I just walk away now. It doesn't do any good explaining."
The above example features many of the micro aggressions that Black Americans experience on a daily basis. For the most part, a lot of the protests have revolved around the macro aggression - the open killing of unarmed Black people.
However, when we are only moved to action by the overt racism, we are looking at the waterfall while ignoring the gushing river leading up to it. Yes, the waterfall catches our attention. But it's the powerful current of water behind it that causes it.
This current shows up as daily forms of insidious judgement, prejudice, and demeaning behavior. The problem is, as White Americans, we don't see it. Below are two powerful example of this. You didn't see these things happen. And if there weren't videos, would you believe they did? I have left the caption in so the Black people who experienced it can speak about it in their own words.
I can't even come out here for some fresh air without a White lady telling me I shouldn't be sitting here."
The above videos are an example of what it means to be labeled by White Americans as "other" in this country. To be Black is to constantly encounter people who think you don't belong. You must constantly prove your right and your worthiness to exist. Make no mistake - these videos are not isolated incidents (as Team Top Figure noted in their caption). It was just the one time they decided to film it happening. Imagine how exhausting that would be. How infuriating it would be. How you would see this happening to not just you, but your friends, your family, and your community. How it would get under your skin and inside your head - is it me? Am I imagining this? Why don't White people do something to stop this?
Along with the micro and macro aggresions, there's something in between this. A sort of national complacency that allows a deeply racist man to own a NBA team with a mostly Black roster (Donald Sterling). It's what allows us to make folk heroes out of men like Cliven Bundy. In 2014, Bundy held an armed standoff in Nevada to oppose government overreach. Bundy, who is a source of inspiration for many White Americans, said this about the Black community, "They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I've often wondered, are they better off as slaves?"
Donald Sterling and Cliven Bundy are only the tip of iceberg. The fact is, we as White people have a long history of idealizing and elevating racist people into positions of power and influence. The most glaring example is of course our current president (to understand this begin with his role in the Central Park 5). But as I pointed out in the two examples above, it's not just the man at the top. He's just the one we are all aware of. Racist people hold positions of power, from city council to landlords to middle managers, in every corner of this country. As a White person, this can be hard to see, because to us they appear neutral. There is no negative impact for us. Nothing forces you or I to acknowledge their existence. And so we don't.
You add all of that up, plus all the things I didn't get into (there is so much more) and yes, there is a lot to be angry about. And adding to the anger is the fact that, as a Black person, your anger is considered inappropriate and unwanted. If you're Black and talking about your life, your children, or your community, you're not allowed to express any emotion. Don't yell. Don't glare. Don't get tense. Be as soft and tender as possible. Make us feel safe.
The bottom line is, asking Black people to talk about racism while demonizing their anger is akin to emotional torture. It's a brutal way of negating someone's experience. It's a direct blow to someone's right to feel in response to the world around them. It's a form of silencing people who need to be heard more than ever.
And so I leave you with last one video. This one might make you uncomfortable. It might bring up all kinds of stories and biases. It might make you want to return to the words and voices softened for your comfort. Keep watching. Resist any urges to project onto them how they "should" act or what you would do. We, as White people, do not experience racism. We have no idea how it feels. We have no place to say how anyone should respond to it. Our only place is to listen and understand this is but a glimpse of the emotional weight Black Americans carry every day.
This post is part 2 of 4 in a series I'm doing on modern racism in America. As I have learned about what racism and anti-racism work are in a modern cultural context, I have come to understand one of the most important things we can do is end the culture of silence (we will dive into that in part 4). Let's break the silence together and continue the conversation...
When white people talk about a person of color in a movie, they will often identify that person by their race or ethnicity. "I really like the black woman, she's..." or "Why did that one guy do that? You know, the Asian one..." We, as white people, are well aware of other people's race and use it as a way to identify them. When we speak about our fellow white people, however, we rarely, if ever, identify them as being white. "The tall woman..." or "The one on the phone."
For us, as white people, we do not see whiteness as a means of description. In our minds, to be white is to exist. To describe the "white woman" or the "white man" wouldn't make sense because, at any given time, we are surrounded by white people and that could mean just about anyone. To white people, we are not a part of a race. We just are.
When it is pointed out that we are in fact part of a racial group, we, as white people, tend to cringe with internal discomfort. We don't like to be thought of as a collective. We like to see ourselves as individuals, free of the constraints of racial identity.
Part of the reason being a member of the white race makes us so uncomfortable is because we know that, historically, a white group was often an angry mob, a conqueror, a system of terror. The white race is associated with the colonization of Native lands (the US, Australia, South Africa, India, etc.), genocide, the KKK, white supremacy, and so on. And not to mention the millions of whites who still, in present times, consider the white race to be superior. To be a part of the white group, the white race, means we are a part of a group that causes inexplicable pain (when I say "white race" I mean as a social concept - there is no biological white race).
On the other hand, when we as whites identify with the white individual, we connect ourselves with heroes. There is no shortage of white people (mostly men who are straight and able bodied, but that's another conversation), who we feel have contributed valiantly to politics, medicine, art, and science. We loathe the idea of being lumped in with the white race but love the idea of being white individuals. We even fantasize about being the next great white hero, the next Steve Jobs, Tony Robbins, Bill Gates, Marie Curie, Susan B. Anthony, and so on.
We wonder what contribution we'll make, how we'll be remembered, and how our legacy, as the individual we are, will be memorialized.
However, to not identify with a race is something only whites are allowed to do. We can choose to ignore our racial identity because we see whiteness everywhere (the government, tv, movies, CEOs, writers, our neighborhood, restaurants, work, etc). It feels like the norm, and we've internalized it as the norm, thereby negating our need to identify it, because to be white is to just be. Whiteness defines the Western human experience.
It is so interwoven into the society white Europeans built that we (as white people) don't even realize it's there. Which leads us to believe it's not necessary to acknowledge it, or to claim we're a part of it. For many white people, they would say a part of what? And in that question, they unwillingly acknowledge that society is so intertwined with the white experience that there is no place where they end and everything else begins. You can't acknowledge something you can't see. But, just because we can't see it doesn't mean it's not there. In fact, brown and black people will readily tell you that they see where the white race begins and ends. They see what it means to be white. And because we, as white people, are so used to seeing ourselves everywhere, it's a shock when someone points out that because whiteness has no end, because it so deeply pervades society, it is actively erasing everything that exists beyond its borders.
In other words, to be brown or black is to be invisible. It is to be outside the scope of what we've deemed human existence is.
Its is only us white people, who cannot perceive of ourselves the way everyone else does, who see our skin color as so universal, so standard, so equated with the very concept of humanity, that we don't even realize that our whiteness is intertwined with the reality we're living. We rarely, if ever, reflect on what it means to be a person of color and interacting with the white race.
In order to root out systematic racism, we as white people must acknowledge the reason it makes us so uncomfortable to be thought of as a white race or a white group. And in acknowledging this, we must come to terms with how other people see us, as white people dominating a diverse world.
As we've talked about so far, we white people prefer to be defined as individuals. That's what we've been socialized to believe we are. And so when we enter a room with people of color, we don't register why our presence would make anyone there uncomfortable. In our minds, we project onto them our individual qualities. We think they see a person who is kind. Or a person who is funny. A person who is warm and loving.
However, upon looking at me, or you, or anyone else who is white, there is no way to know who you are individually. What you are, to people who don't know you, is a white person. You may be racist. You may not be. You might be a white supremacist. Or you might not be. You might wish harm onto people of color. Or maybe not. How can anyone tell by looking at you?
We as white people must realize that although our intentions are good, we are part of a race of people that calls the cops on a black family having a bbq. We are part of a race of people who calls the cops on two black men sitting in Starbucks, waiting for a meeting to start. We are part of a race of people who have been caught on video killing black people.
Therefore, we must acknowedlge that although we believe ourselves to be good people, when we walk into a room, down a street, or get on a bus, there's no way to know whether or not we're the next Karen. There's no way to know if we're about to exert terror on an unsuspecting person of color.
There. Is. No. Way. To. Know.
As I learned about identity, racism, and where I stood in it all, it was hard to reconcile the public perception many people hold of me with my private self. To come to realize my presence caused people anxiety and uncertainty was something I wanted to deny. Surely not me. Them, yes. But not me. And that is me returning to my insistence that I be seen as an individual, and not a member of the white race.
And now you might be thinking That's not fair! I'm not racist! I'm a GOOD person!
All I can say is, now you are beginning to understand how it feels to be judged for your skin color. But make no mistake - the way white people are judged is incomparable to the way people of color are judged. You will not be killed for being white. You will not have a police officer kneel on your neck with his hands in his pockets, casually strangling the life out of you. You will not lose out on jobs, housing, or loans because you are white.
Rather, you will benefit. Being white is not going to derail your life. It's going to accelerate it (many people refuse to hear this point because discrimination is illegal. Legality does not stop people from committing crimes. If it did we would not have robbers and rapists. People break the law all the time. The only way to stop discrimination is to stop racism).
We may not like that we are a race, and one of the main reasons we don't is we've never had to think of ourselves that way. Generalizing and grouping people by race is thus far something that has been done by white people and not to them. We exempted ourselves and therefore respond with anger, defensiveness, and wounded pride when it's done to us. When we are asked to see ourselves as white, our knee jerk reaction is to claim we are not racist. We're not like those people. We're different. We're an individual. We proclaim this with pride, without a hint of irony that our insistence on being seen as an individual, rather than a member of a socially constructed race, can only be done if we grant ourselves special privileges no other race has.
For more on this I highly recommend the book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria (make sure you get the updated version - the first edition was published two decades ago). This series will be continued with part 3 - what does it mean to be a good ally?
Last night, I watched Michelle Obama's "Becoming" on Netflix. It centers around the time she did her book tour for her memoir of the same name (late 2018 into early 2019), which took place a year after she moved out of the White House. There were so many amazing quotes in this film. I've listed some below and why they stood out to me. If you have a favorite quote yourself, share it in the comments!
When Michelle met with a group of teenage girls, one of them asked her how she feels about transitioning back to her normal life. How would Michelle navigate the leap from First Lady back to the life she was living before? How would she get back on track?
I love this quote because so many of us are currently in a place of transition. Due to the current circumstances, many of us are facing the reality that we cannot do, or don't want to do, what we've been doing. We're also acknowledging that life won't be like it was before, and we have to create a new track. Considering what it would be like to go from the all-consuming role as First Lady onto a completely new, unknown role, inspired me to embrace the unknown and the new with courage and integrity.
In a later group meeting with young black women (Michelle speaks often in the film about her passion for working with the youth), Rayven asked a powerful question:
"I just want to know, how did you, as a black woman, persevere through invisibility?"
One thing I loved about this film was how open Michelle was about racial inequality in this country. It's something she wasn't able to speak so directly to while she was First Lady. And I also love how she empowered each one of those women with her words. She didn't ask them to wait for something outside of them to change. She asked them to change their circumstances within while at the same time acknowledging we are not on an even playing field. This is so important because I see so many people who say the first part - change begins within. But they don't do the second part, which is to validate the affect that oppression and bias has.
"I have high expectations of young people. It's the same expectations my family had of me. My grandfather, Dandy, expected us to be great. But he went through life being underestimated. Growing up, he was a brilliant young man, somebody that loved to read books, to delve into things in a deep and meaningful way. He could have been a professor. He could have been a doctor. But because of race and class, he couldn't get into colleges. He didn't have the money or the resources. And imagine walking around with all this ability and the world telling you, "No. No, you're not good enough. No, you're not ready." Watching people half your intelligence being promoted past you. Watching opportunities slip away, Not because you're not able, but because nobody thinks you deserve it.That caused him a lot of disappointment and anger. That made him push us to be better." - Michelle Obama, Becoming
Of all the quotes in the movie, this one stood out to me the most. It struck me not only because of the anger I would feel if I was Dandy's granddaughter, but because this is still the world we live in. We still promote people based on the fact that they fit an inner ideal of what we think a successful person should look like. Until we tear down all our prejudices, we will continue to all lose out on the brilliance and ingenuity of so many of our fellow citizens.
"I ended up going to Princeton. I was one of a handful of minority students. It was the first time in my life where I stood out like that. I learned that one of my roommates moved out because her mother was horrified that I was black. She felt her daughter was in danger. I wasn't prepared for that." - Michelle Obama, Becoming
This quote also stood out to me above all the others. If someone couldn't live with me because my skin color made them afraid, and I was a young girl, finding my place in the world, I wouldn't know what to do. Can you imagine the impact that would have on a young, developing psyche? And as with the quote above, this is still the reality of the world we live in. No one should have to question their worthiness or their humanity because of the ignorance of another person.
"The energy that's out there is much better than what we see. I wish people didn't feel badly, because this country is good. People are good. People are decent... One of the things we do miss about Barack Obama is that he would get out into the country and he would campaign around hope, and he would fill arenas." - Michelle Obama, Becoming
This was one of the last quotes I noted. I had about six other quotes highlighted, which I cut because I wanted to end with this one. What stands out to me about this quote is the reminder that Obama filled arenas on hope. It's such a powerful reminder because I so often see our current president filling arenas based on anger, division, and bullying. I had forgotten that not long ago, hundreds of thousands of people also filled arenas, and on a message of hope and unity. Those people are still out there. And if, after all she's been through, Michelle can still believe in the goodness of people and this country, then I can too.
I wish I could have put down all the quotes from the film I'd saved. There were so many moments I paused, reflected on her words, and thought about the class and gracefulness she brought to everything she did and does. But the thing that really surprised me was how funny Michelle is. We all know she has a brilliant mind and an inspiring, forward thinking spirit. What I had never seen before was how funny and charismatic she is.
Becoming is available to stream on Netflix. I hope you get a chance to see it also! And now I'm off to download the audio book because I love hearing author's tell me their story in their own voice.